When The Guardian reached out to me to write about the return to Rome the very day the rigid Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were lifted, I pumped the tires of my bicycle, charged every phone and camera battery, and hit the pavement the minute we were allowed out of the house. I wanted to see if I would be any different from the previous two weeks, and I wanted to see and talk with people who, like me, live and work in the Centro Storico. Here’s my story of the very first morning in Rome, open city.
Italy’s bars, shops and salons reopen, but amid the relief Romans are still waiting to find out what life will be like post Covid-19
The Eternal City absent of traffic and chaos is something we’ve dreamed of. In my lifetime in Rome, I’ve experienced the city almost empty on a few occasions: usually late-night and early-morning walks home, but nothing like the past two months.
On 11 March, Rome was silenced. Doors were closed, residents stayed inside and the pace of a frenetic city slowed to that of a faint beat. For 54 days there was no traffic, no street-side chatter and no tourists. The only movement was that of the delivery bikes and scooters passing in the streets below the apartment.
On 4 May, when the centro storico reopened, we returned to our city. The oval-shaped Piazza Navona became a jogging track, Piazza della Rotonda turned into a great training ground for fledgling cyclists and Corso Vittorio Emanuele II was commandeered by skateboarders. For two weeks, we lived in our own utopia – it was just us and Rome. Even the former golden boy of Italian football, Roma’s Francesco Totti, and wife Ilary, enjoyed the empty streets.
As of 18 May, Italy’s bars, restaurants, shops and beauty salons could open for business. So, at 10 am, I walk out of my palazzo in Rome’s historic centre and into a street scene that could be any typical Monday morning: couriers run along the road, handfuls of people enter and exit the tram, and there is a long line for the post office.
I call my cousin Giovanna who lives in Prati, a nearby neighbourhood. “It’s weird. It feels like we’re back to normal. Everyone’s at the bar downstairs all baci abbracci (kisses and hugs) but with masks on but with masks on.”
I bike to my local market. On via dei Giubbonari, shopkeepers are setting up and residents are walking around. People sit, socially distanced, at the tables of an outdoor cafe. Mostly everyone is wearing a masks. Reality sets in by the time I arrive at Campo de’ Fiori where there are only a handful of vendors, far fewer than there usually are.
Pippo and Anastasia Nicosia, flower vendors, came back to Campo on 4 May – and were here this morning at 7am. “It’s much quieter, fewer people. But we’ve been given a chance to see a Rome that perhaps we lost for a while,” Anastasia says. “Will it pick up? We need to wait before we have an idea what reality will be like … before we have equilibrio.”
Balance, that’s what she’s talking about because right now there is none. The main streets of Rome, such as Via del Corso and Via dei Condotti, are misleadingly busy. Shop owners, staff, cleaning crews and deliveries. There are even buskers, including Luiza Constantin, but shoppers are few. On Via dei Condotti, I bump into Arthur, who came out to be the first to enjoy the boutiques before the return of the crowds. I like his positivity.
At Artisanal Cornucopia, a small boutique on already quiet street near Piazza del Popolo, owner Elif Sallorenzo handles a quiet reopening with aplomb. “Aside from all the sanitary measures, I’ve set up window shopping so that no one has to enter at all. And I’ve sent out an email to my mailing list detailing all the we are doing to ensure our patron’s safety. It’s going to be tough but I remain positive that we will get through this.”
I peruse the streets and follow couples walking against traffic in the centre of the road. And like them, I’ve enjoyed taking up the entire street. I see open boutiques but so far, no foot traffic. On side streets, shopkeepers anxiously await patrons but other shops are closed, protesting against the government, the pandemic and the lack of clear-cut protocols. Some restaurants will open, like Luciano Cucina – which has set up distinct dining shifts – but others have opted to remain shuttered while they plan a strategy for survival.
Only my local cycle shop, Cicli di Bartolomei, on Piazza di Santa Caterina della Rota, seems to be kicking into a higher gear at reopening – and rightfully so. Rome is finally attempting to make good on its promise to turn the city into a bike-friendly one, with economic assistance for those who buy bicycles, push- and electric scooters and e-bikes. Alessandro di Bartolomei tells me his retired mother has had to come in to the shop and help out, as it has been so busy since they reopened on 4 May.
I make my way home, meandering the side streets. At the Pantheon, a woman takes the perfect Instagram photo of her mother, two businessmen walk quickly across the square and a man enters a sandwich shop, all set to a melodic, live soundtrack of birds chirping. It feels like Ferragosto, the 15 August public holiday, AKA Rome’s beautiful full stop.
Rome is trying to find her equilibrio.